Saturday, January 21, 2012

Boats that don’t float

Amid all the media circus around the sinking of the Costa Concordia I have maintained that the whole story is yet to be told.  Its hard to explain the actions of the hapless Captain Schettino but probably even harder to find out from this distance what really happened and what he really did.  If you’re up for close to 15 minutes of maritime narration, this video makes it all a lot clearer.

Final hour of the Costa Concordia

Reconstruction of the Costa Concordia Tragedy, Narration by John Konrad from on Vimeo.

The cruise line is clearly hanging the captain out to dry.  What is less clear is how much of the blame should fall on the captain and how much on the cruise line itself.  While the media initially presented the situation as black and white my instinct was that there were likely many shades of gray involved.  Clearly the captain was grandstanding and he got too close to the island - - - THIS TIME.  Somewhere I read another account of an earlier close pass by the same island, maybe in August if memory serves so this activity was not completely unusual and may very well have been routine and therefore known to his employer.  Known to or perhaps even tacitly condoned by his employer. 

The video refers to Schettino’s claim that he was navigating by sight.  That was likely the initiating error in this incident, if you discount the grandstanding that likely was the overarching problem.  Accidents at sea tend to result from an early error of judgment that compounds and eventually leaves the protagonist with no options, or in this case on the rocks.   When you look at the chart in the video you will see that a path slightly further to the east – probably as little as 50 feet further to the east – would have allowed the boat to continue untouched.  Initiating the turn seconds earlier would have accomplished that but judging that exact distance by eye at night would have been extremely difficult.

What is also evident in the video is that immediately after the incident the captain took exactly the correct actions to mitigate further damage and to protect the lives of his passengers.  The boat did not end up grounded in shallow water by accident – that was a very deliberate action that likely saved hundreds of lives.  These cruise boats are a floating abomination.  They are about as seaworthy as a can of tomato soup.  With close to a 200 foot hole ripped in the side of the floating apartment it would have laid over on its side, trapped most of its passengers inside and promptly gone to the bottom.  Lifeboats are unlikely to be any use when one of these behemoths tips over – the boats on the downward side will get crushed and the boats on the high side can’t be launched because they are lying against the floating apartment. 

The only question about the captain remaining in my mind is what the hell he did after the grounding.  He was in shallow water and obviously his life was in no immediate danger.  His actions after the rock strike indicate the ability to think under pressure so the suggestion that he abandoned ship early out of panic doesn’t seem logical to me.  People do funny things under pressure but I don’t think we’ve heard the whole story on this one yet. 

And now for some late breaking news:  Winston Churchill, enjoying his retirement on a Mediterranean cruise operated by an Italian line is reputed to have been asked “Why an Italian cruise line?”  To which he is reputed to have responded:

“There are three things I like about an Italian cruise line – first, the service is excellent, second the food is extraordinary and third, in the event of an emergency, there is none of that messy nonsense about women and children first.”

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